Only Testing Can Tell if Your Well Water's Safe

By for CAES News

If your home drinking water comes from your local water authority, you have assurance that it's safe to drink. But what if it comes from your own drilled or bored well? How do you know then if it's safe?

Having your water analyzed is as easy as visiting your county Extension Service office.

Your county agent can provide you a water sample kit you can mail to the University of Georgia's water testing labs. Last year the labs tested about 4,000 water samples from Georgia homeowners.

"Using our basic water test, we analyze water samples for pH, mineral content and hardness," said David Kissel, head of the UGA Agricultural and Environmental Services Laboratories. "We can also test for levels of nitrate, chloride, sulfate, phosphate and fluoride."

Once your water sample is tested, you get a report showing results that are above EPA's primary and secondary maximum levels.

"If your water's copper content exceeds 1.3 parts per million, that would be above EPA's maximum levels and a health concern," Kissel said. "Secondary levels aren't health concerns but indicate the water contains minerals that are staining your sink or causing an odor or other nuisance."

The basic test costs only $10. Your county Extension Service office can arrange it.

The lab can also do a separate $25 test that analyzes water for bacterial content.

"When people think their water is contaminated by bacteria, they usually take a sample to their local health department," said Paul Vendrell, the AESL program coordinator who manages the bacterial testing.

"If you have a positive test from your health department that routinely measures just the presence or absence of bacteria, we can analyze your water further to tell you how high the bacterial counts are," Vendrell said. "It helps knowing the bacteria counts when trying to diagnose the source of contamination."

Testing water from a bored well for bacteria is especially important. "The samples we receive that test positive are almost always from a bored well in the Piedmont region of the state," he said. "These shallow wells are very vulnerable to contamination because the water is near the surface and doesn't go through enough filtration."

Many people never make the connection between family illnesses and contaminated water.

"People think they have a stomach virus and don't think about it coming from their well water," Vendrell he said. "To be graphic about these bored wells, their well water could be water from their neighbor's septic system."

Vendrell said most of the bacterial tests his lab conducts are done in connection with new home loans.

"If you drill or bore a new well or you're selling a home where a well is the primary water source, you're required to have your water tested for bacteria," he said. If your water tests positive for bacteria, the AESL recommends ways to disinfect it and protect your well from future contamination.

Last month, the AESL introduced a new Georgia Expanded Water Test.

"This test is a comprehensive package that includes the basic test, the anions, soluble salts and alkalinity," Kissel said. "With these tests we can calculate a saturation index, which is used to determine if your water is either corrosive, neutral or scaling."

Scaling water causes deposits in plumbing such as the buildup of solids in your water heater, Kissel said. Corrosive water can corrode your plumbing, adding toxic metals such as copper and lead to your water. The $45 EWT package tests for copper but not for lead. A separate $20 test could detect lead.

"Lead is rarely found except in older homes with lead in the plumbing," Kissel said.

To learn more about any of these water tests, contact your county Extension Service office. Or call the AESL at (706) 542-5350 or 542-7690.

Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.